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Between cancer treatments at the Mayo Clinic, Caps fan flies home to attend Game 3

(Courtesy of Amanda Wilson)

Jenny Bradshaw DeFalco had originally planned to travel to Minnesota this week to spend time with her best friend, Amanda Kraus Wilson, whose family relocated to Rochester from Virginia in March after she was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer. But with the Capitals in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 20 years and Wilson between treatments at the Mayo Clinic, DeFalco recently proposed a different idea. If she was feeling up for it, and if her doctors gave their approval, what if Wilson instead flew back to D.C. for a few days to see her beloved Capitals play in person?

“Every year, we try to go to at least one game each round,” Wilson, 41, said Monday before leaving for the airport with her husband, Scott, their two youngest children and her mom, who took a leave of absence from her job and relocated to Minnesota along with the family to provide support.

Wilson grew up on Capitals hockey; her grandparents were season ticket holders during the franchise’s nascent years at Capital Centre, which didn’t end in playoff heartbreak because Washington never qualified for the playoffs. She had a Dale Hunter jersey and was an avid fan by the time she met DeFalco in seventh grade. They both attended Robinson Secondary School, where Wilson was a standout soccer player, and have been best friends ever since.

After graduating from James Madison, Wilson returned to her childhood roots in Northern Virginia and met her husband while bartending at Joe Theismann’s Restaurant in Alexandria. They’ve attended hundreds of Capitals games together over the years, including the Winter Classic at Nationals Park and countless soul-crushing playoff losses in Chinatown. Wilson shared Capitals season tickets with her brother for about a decade until her family moved to Suffolk, Va., more than three years ago.

On Feb. 21, as the Capitals were positioning themselves for another Metropolitan Division title, Wilson was diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma of the inferior vena cava (IVC). DeFalco, Wilson’s maid of honor, flew out to Rochester to help prepare the house where Wilson and her family have lived for the past two months. DeFalco has since visited multiple times, accompanying her childhood friend to consultations with doctors and watching Capitals playoff games together. Now they’ll attend Game 3, along with their husbands, with Washington two wins from its second trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

“Once my doctors said yes, Jenny said, ‘We’re taking you,’ ” Wilson said of her impromptu trip to D.C.

If not for Wilson, DeFalco said she wouldn’t have the season tickets in Section 107 just three rows from the glass at Capital One Arena, where the friends will sit Tuesday. About 10 years ago, when DeFalco’s husband was trying to decide whether to purchase Capitals or Redskins season tickets for his company, it was Wilson who convinced him to rock the red.

“She’s the biggest Caps fan that I knew growing up,” DeFalco said, “and she’s absolutely the reason we even have these tickets.”

DeFalco, who has attended several playoff games with her husband this spring, said she’s continually inspired by Wilson’s resolve in the face of uncertainty while raising three kids, including a 3-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter.

“She has a lot of balls in the air right now, but she’s just always been such a strong, positive, supportive and happy person,” DeFalco said. “I think that’s why she has a huge following and support group. We have a lot of good mutual friends in the [D.C.] area, and every day I visit her in Minnesota, she gets a care package, sometimes from people she hasn’t talked to in 10 years. She feels that love, and it’s really nice to see.”

One such care package included a custom Capitals jersey with #AMANDASTRONG and No. 20 — Wilson’s high school soccer number — on the back. The jersey was inscribed, “To Amanda, Stay Strong,” and signed by several Capitals players, including Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and T.J. Oshie.

The jersey was a gift from Shannon Gharib, who had lost touch with Wilson over the years after they met as freshmen suitemates at JMU.

“We have a lot of mutual friends, so I saw on Facebook that she has cancer, and it really just touched by heart,” Gharib said Monday. “I donated money to her GoFundMe page, but I felt like there was something else I needed to do. I always admired her strength and zest for life.”

Gharib ordered the custom Capitals jersey online and enlisted the help of a couple of mutual friends from JMU, Jahan Moghadam and Sherif Abdalla, to try to get it signed. Abadlla’s company had done some work with the Capitals before and came through with more signatures than Gharib could have ever imagined. Gharib overnighted the jersey to Minnesota, and it arrived the day before Game 3 of the Capitals’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Washington, which had dropped the first two games of the series at home, won Game 3 in double overtime on a goal by Lars Eller, who, like Amanda, was wearing No. 20.

Wilson has worn the jersey for every game since, including the Capitals’ series-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, which elicited tears of joy. Wilson’s husband said he has never seen his wife happier than she was in the moments after Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal.

Wilson, who planned to attend the Capitals’ morning skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Tuesday, made sure to pack her lucky jersey in her carry-on luggage for Monday’s trip home. Her family will stay with her parents in Fairfax until Saturday, and Scott’s parents are driving up from Suffolk to see their grandchildren. Depending on how Wilson is feeling and how many visits she can squeeze in over the next few days, she might also attend Game 4 on Thursday night. There’s a chance, of course, that that game will have some added significance.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Wilson, speaking like a true Capitals fan not wanting to jinx anything, said with a laugh. “I just want to think about Game 3. It’s amazing how well they’re playing. They’re just clicking, and it’s just awesome.”

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